A milligram of radium in the tranquil dark, by Adam Pugh
‘Reality precedes the voice that seeks it, but as the earth precedes the tree, but as the world precedes the human, but as the sea precedes the vision of the sea, life precedes love, the matter of the body precedes the body, and in turn language one day will have preceded the possession of silence.’
Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H.
The prehistory of cinema is the prehistory of humanity. Before the lens, there was the eye; before the white light of the lamp, the fire; before the frame of the screen, the mouth of the cave. And perhaps the things that made up the world were the things that explained it.
In Clarice Lispector's towering, inscrutable philosophical novel The Passion According to G.H. (1964), the narrator experiences a violent epiphany which uncovers that the essence of a ‘thing’ cannot be approached directly, but only after a total breakdown of self, a deconstruction which requires that which is fixed to be robbed of its name; and which dissolves the 'I' into the solution of the not-I.
Where photography is 'the picture of a hollow, of a lack, of an absence', and the word, even if it was originary, dubiously controlling, fixing all that it surveys, the means of accessing the essential must be plural, not monocular, and must do so obliquely, analogously, and without any language whatsoever.
Animation does not need to represent, so the gestures it makes need not – cannot – be named. “'The name is an accretion”,' Lispector stipulates, “'and blocks contact with the thing.”'; and in this sense, animation is one of precious few tools to be able to delaminate this, to strip away the words that cloud the space of reception of the thing.
Animation's privileged position on the edge of cinema allows it to look to painting, sculpture, and to every most originary example of those forms. In the cave are paintings; in the fire, warmth as well as light. It tethers us concretely to primal needs and desires – to an unconscious – serving to satisfy an unknown, almost intangible yet still extant human precedent. Even, perhaps, an inhuman one, as Lispector writes: ‘the quivering of an entirely mute rattling in the rock; and we, who made it to today, are still quivering with it.'
To approach the thing is to reconcile the human with the prehuman, and whilst, with the institutions we have established for viewing the world, we can only crudely approximate this world of phenomena, some are boundless enough, generous enough, to point towards an indeterminacy in which the scales of representation might fall. Animation is one such institution. Caught in the magic hour between cinema and precinema, it cannot summon things themselves, but neither is it compelled merely to represent those things, nor to define them. And so, it functions rather as a catalyst, a draught of Ayahuasca which might - might - lead to the space which leads to the thing itself, which 'wakens like a milligram of radium in the tranquil dark.'
Animation needs be neither representational nor literal. By removing not only the probability but the possibility of representation in the photographic sense (applicable even to photo-realistic CG animation, which is not captured, but created), it can exist in a state of suspension that disavows order, grammar and geometry, to reveal a path from the circumscribed to the boundless, the finite to the infinite, gesturing towards the phenomenal by means of a freer lexicon: to approach the thing.
So much, so good. But there is another, more pragmatic way of understanding the friction between the self and the flight from the self here: that of the inherent differences between the mode of production in mainstream cinema and animation. If we take the studio system which dominates the moving images of the cinema, with its pyramidal labour structure and focus on the personality of the director figure, to be the embodiment of the 'I', then the artisanal, solitary craft of animation becomes the negation of this: the id to cinema's ego; the sump of the imagination, into which all that is unformed, naked and unfixable sinks.
When this works, it works as the result of a careful and delicate balance between artist and material: a balance wrought by time, patience and proximity. But the ineffable cannot be accessed by proxy, or by committee; it cannot be formulated or synthesised. It is only approached as the result of a deep and intense relationship between maker and made; it relies also on chance, uncertainty, the freedom to follow loose ends and, as Lispector posits, 'the joy of getting lost'. Without this space of concentration, and with everything charted and delineated, the zone of the 'vital node' would be closed. Things would remain aloof, essenceless and inanimate, the world made only of untouchable 'pieces of thing.' Here, then, to the maintenance of this sense of craft, of solitary process, of journeys without maps into the wilderness, loosening the grip of the self and casting off the mantle of the word — and to the space to summon the ambivalent, indefinite and unnameable.
Adam Pugh is a curator and writer based in Norwich. He established and ran Aurora, a festival of artists' moving image, in Norwich (2005 – 2009), and has since worked on freelance projects as a curator for the Barbican Art Gallery, London Film Festival, OUTPOST Gallery, Animate Projects and Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, among others; and established the curatorial platform Promontories as a means to present projects, screenings and publications. He contributes regularly to Art Monthly, and has written for Tate, thisistomorrow and others. He has devised and delivered Forking Paths, Mirrored Chambers, a course on artists’ animation, for Animate Projects at LUX, and has delivered talks and served on international juries for various festivals and events worldwide, including Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen and Courtisane, Ghent. He is currently working as Artists' Moving Image Project Manager for the Independent Cinema Office, running a two-year project with the ICO and LUX.